02-19-2017  10:49 am      •     

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- U.S. taxpayers spend more than $30 billion a year on for-profit private schools, despite the sector's relatively high drop-out rate, according to a congressional investigation released Monday.

$32 billion in taxpayer money was spent on the for-profit sector last year, according to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

But during the 2008-2009 school year, which is the most recent data available for withdrawal rates, 54% of for-profit students dropped out without a degree. That translates to more than half a million students in one school year.

The report also found that for-profit schools charge tuition that is much higher than their public counterparts. Bachelor's programs at for-profits costs 20% more than public schools, while an associate's degree at a for-profit institution is four times the cost.

For-profit schools were also fingered for spending far more on marketing and recruiting than on actual instruction: $4.2 billion compared to $3.2 billion during the 2008-2009 school year.

The report said that for-profits "devoted less [money] to actual instruction costs (faculty and curriculum) than to either marketing and recruiting."

Many students enrolled in these schools are military veterans attending on the GI Bill, the report said. The Department of Veterans Affairs bankrolls four years of higher education for veterans who have served since Sept. 11, 2001. The GI Bill covers all tuition at public schools and up to $17,000 a year at private schools.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the industry group representing for-profit schools, dismissed the congressional report as an inaccurate, politically motivated attack.

"Unfortunately, [this] report continues in the tradition of ideology overriding reality," said the APSCU, in a response on its website. "The report twists the facts to fit a narrative, proving that this is nothing more than continued political attacks on private-sector colleges and universities."

Ernie Gibble, a spokesman for DeVry University, one of the most prominent for-profit schools, said issues outlined in the congressional investigation were part of a wider problem with education in America, not just with for-profits.

"While this [investigation] has identified some problems that must be addressed, many of these issues, including improving graduation rates, ensuring ethical recruiting practices, reducing student debt and addressing the educational needs of underserved populations requires the whole of higher education's attention and action," said Gibble in an email to CNNMoney.

The Senate committee, which is chaired by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, said that unless reforms are imposed on for-profit schools, "the sector will continue to turn out hundreds of thousands of students with debt but no degree, and taxpayers will see little return on their investment."

Earlier this month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that Americans have racked up $150 billion in private student loan debt.

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All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. 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